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Posts Tagged ‘de Young Museum’

A First Time Visitor’s Guide to San Francisco (Updated and Expanded)


A little over six months ago I produced a potted guide for first time visitors to San Francisco. It was so well received that, following my recent visit, I thought it might be helpful to update and expand it to keep it fresh. I have also included a number of new photographs to supplement the text.

As before, it is arranged in  no particular order.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

  • The most iconic sight in a city where there are many attractions to compete with that title;
  • Drive it and take in the views from Vista Point (where the tour buses go), but for the killer photos, cross under Highway 101 at the end of the bridge to climb up the Marin Headlands (below) – you may need to wait for a parking space, and the walk up to the nearest point to the bridge can be challenging for some, but you would regret it if you did not attempt it;

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  • If driving, you have to register in advance for the toll (credit card is charged when you return to city);
  • Walk it or bike it too for more wonderful photo opportunities – and for the health-giving properties, naturally;

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  • Approach it by walking from Aquatic Park at the western end of Fisherman’s Wharf, past Fort Mason and along Marina Green and Crissy Field – it’s quite a trek and usually very bracing, but it affords great views of the bridge and Alcatraz;
  • If time permits, take a side detour to the former army post of the Presidio with its fine, preserved military buildings, many converted for modern use such as the Walt Disney Family Museum, and hikes through the woods with yet more stunning views of Karl the Fog lurking over the bridge.

2.  Golden Gate Park

  • Much to offer in a park that it is a fifth larger than New York’s Central Park;
  • Two splendid museums: the California Academy of Sciences with its resident aquarium, planetarium  and rainforest and the modern art de Young Museum where the building is as interesting as the exhibits it contains;
  • Japanese Tea Garden: it may be twee and not the cheapest gig in town, but it is undeniably beautiful and provides tasty oriental teas and snacks in the café;

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  • Walk round lovely Stow Lake and admire the Chinese Pagoda, the bridges and bird life, and climb Strawberry Hill for excellent northerly views;
  • Grab a hot dog or ice cream at the boat house and take  a pedal boat ride;

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  • Linger among the trees in the moving National AIDS Memorial Grove and sweat a few pounds sauntering through the steamy Conservatory of Flowers (pictured below);

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  • The buffalo paddock (don’t expect the creatures to acknowledge you, they are rather shy) and the Dutch Windmill (pictured below) are also worth exploring at the western end of the park;
  • If you crave refreshment when you reach the beach, grab a table in the Beach Chalet, ensuring you enjoy the murals depicting life in San Francisco in the thirties on the ground floor before you do so.

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3. Ferry Building

  • There is a gleaming new cruise terminal nearby but ferries still use it;
  • Its huge popularity, however, stems from the fantastic selection of indoor food and gift stores, including an attractive, independent bookstore and urbane wine bar;
  • Celebrated local restaurateurs demonstrate their skills at the Farmers’ Market, recently voted the best in the United States and the sixth best in the world, outside on certain days of the week;

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4. Cliff House

  • Drive or take the 38 Muni bus from downtown to Ocean Beach for two fine restaurants with stunning views over the Pacific;
  • Stroll along the beach for miles;
  • Explore the remains of Adolph Sutro’s great public baths and watch the endlessly fascinating display of sea birds on Seal Rock (via the fascinating camera obscura if it is open);

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  • Take the short walk to the western end of Golden Gate Park or, if you’re feeling energetic and haven’t forgotten your camera (to catch tantalising glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge en route), walk back to the city along the coastal trail that leads from Sutro Baths, descending to China and Baker beaches to get close to the Pacific lashing the shoreline;
  • If you have time, call in for coffee and pastries with Rodin at the Palace of the Legion of Honour.

5. Chinatown

  • Witness the largest Chinese community outside Asia going about its daily business;
  • Grant Avenue, though touristy, is best for gifts whilst Stockton contains the markets at which the Chinese women shop for produce not seen anywhere else!;

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  • You must eat here at least once during your stay – I recommend the Great Eastern, after all the President and First Lady eat there when in town, and the R & G Lounge;

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  • Don’t forget to glance to your right as you walk along Grant for views of the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid;
  • Amble through Portsmouth Square, where Captain Montgomery raised the American flag for the first time in San Francisco in 1846, and watch the dozens of card and mahjong games being played by the elderly male residents in “Chinatown’s living room”;
  • Dip into Ross Alley and buy an inexpensive bag of the goodies produced in the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

6. North Beach

  • As befits its traditional status as the Italian quarter, it is full of excellent cafés and restaurants – Trieste with its powerful espresso and live opera the most famous but Greco and Puccini are recommended too;

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  • We have also had good meals at the North Beach Restaurant, Calzone, Sotto Mare, Rose Pistola, Firenze at Night;
  • Rest awhile at Washington Square Park watching the dogs and their humans at play under the watchful eye of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul and Coit Tower;

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  • If you’re looking for breakfast or brunch, join the line outside Mama’s on Washington Square, or if it’s a little later in the day, take your place in a similarly long queue for Tony’s Pizza Napoletana on Stockton and Union.

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  • Have a glass or two of Anchor Steam or Sierra Nevada beer at the Vesuvio Café,  historic haunt of the Beats, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, in the fifties and sixties;
  • Pore over the framed newspaper cuttings and visit the state of the art gents restroom downstairs (I cannot vouch for the ladies, unfortunately);

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  • Peruse the unique shelves of the City Lights Bookstore, one of the most famous in the world, a few steps across Jack Kerouac Alley;

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  • On the opposite corner on Columbus, Broadway is – or, arguably, was – home to many of San Francisco’s more famous fleshpots and the fascinating Beat Museum;
  • If you want to see a cheeky rather than bawdy show, you can do no better than take in long running revue Beach Blanket Babylon – best to book in advance.

7. Palace of Fine Arts

  • The only remaining building from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the resurrection of San Francisco from the Earthquake and Fire of nine years before;

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  • It is a beautiful classical structure set alongside a tranquil swan-filed lagoon attached;

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8. Haight Ashbury

  • Whether you’re an old hippie or not, it’s a fascinating place with lots of “head” shops, stores selling retro clothes, good cafés, a massive record shop (Amoeba) and not a few “characters”;
  • Close to Golden Gate Park, it is possible to visit both on the same day.

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9. Alcatraz

  • It may be touristy but no visit to the city is complete without an excursion to the most feared federal penitentiary of them all;
  • In view of its popularity, it’s best to book in advance, preferably before you travel;
  • The day tour is good but the evening (sunset) one is even better, though perhaps not for those of a nervous disposition!

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10. Bay Cruise

  • Sit back and rest those weary feet for an hour or two on the bay, remembering to take suncream, required as much for the wind as the sun;
  • Stop off at Sausalito for a drink and a promenade, taking in those shimmering views from the original “dock of the bay”;
  • The Rocket Boat, with its raucous rock and roll soundtrack, juddering high-speed turns and close-up views of AT & T Park, is tremendous fun, though not for the faint- hearted!

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11. Castro

  • Ground zero for San Francisco’s large gay and lesbian community, with rainbow flags are fluttering everywhere;
  • Many eclectic and unique stores;
  • Beautifully restored Victorian houses rivalling those in Haight Ashbury and Pacific Heights;
  • Good cafes and bars, with an especially vibrant night secene;

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  • Perhaps its most famous building is the great movie house, the Castro Theatre, complete with its own wurlitzer;  if you can, book tickets for a film, many of which come as double bills;

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  • You might even get lucky and be able to participate in a sing-a-long version of either The Sound of Music, Grease or The Wizard of Oz. Or if not, Frozen!

12. Alamo Square

  • Position yourself to take the perfect picture of the famous Painted Ladies Victorian houses with the modern city looming behind.

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  • The recent ban on tourist buses should make the perennial wait for the photo unencumbered by human or vehicular traffic a less annoying one.

13.  Mission

  • Boisterous, funky, traditionally Latino and Hispanic neighbourhood, increasingly subject to gentrification;
  • Great for cheap clothing and inexpensive Central and South American food;
  • Take the pilgrimage to the original Mission Dolores church, the oldest surviving building in the city;
  • Take a picnic to adjacent Dolores Park and savour the great views, not only of the city but also of your fellow humans (some of which may be naked – you have been warned!;
  • Difficult enough on a warm day to find a spare square inch, the current re-modeling and upgrade to facilities means that half of the park is closed to the public.

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14. Coit Tower

  • Fire nozzle shaped monument provided for the city by Lillian Hitchcock Coit in honour of the brave firefighters of the Earthquake and Fire of 1906;
  • Take in the wonderful views over the bay, including Alcatraz;
  • See and hear the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill (though you are just as likely to encounter them elsewhere in the city nowadays);
  • Don’t bypass the wonderful murals in the rush to the tiny escalator to the viewing stage.

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  • Climb up at least one set of steps – Filbert and Greenwich are the best – past lovingly tended urban gardens.

15.  Twin Peaks

  • If you take an organised tour of the city, this is likely to be the first place you are taken for its splendid panoramic views of the city;
  • I will take this opportunity, however, to put the case for my adopted neighbourhood of Bernal Heights..

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16. Civic Center

  • Home to magnificent City Hall and several other public buildings, including the symphony/opera and library;
  • Good, cheap farmer’s market on Wednesdays.

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  • You should be aware that this area, along with the adjoining Mid-Market (rapidly being gentrified) and Tenderloin districts, is where you are most likely to be accosted by vagrants.

17. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39

  • The most popular tourist spots on the bay, where I, along with many thousands before me, fell in love with the city, bedazzled not only by the bay views but the fun and energy of the area;
  • For me, that love may have faded as I have gravitated towards the inland neighbourhoods, but I can rarely resist spending my last full day absorbing the atmosphere;
  • See,  listen and laugh at the crazy sea lions on Pier 39, long since now migrated from Ocean Beach;

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  • Wander round the myriad of gift shops for presents for those back home;
  • Sample seafood at the many restaurants and wharfside stalls – we have eaten well at the Franciscan, Neptune’s Palace and McKormick & Kuleto’s;

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  • The Hard Rock  Cafe is here too if that is more your scene;
  • The Gold Dust Lounge, relocated from Union Square, is a good watering hole with live music;
  • The Musée Mecanique (vintage amusement arcade) and Hyde Street Pier (collection of classic ships, pictured), are two of the best deals, not only on the waterfront, but in the whole of the city; 

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  • Beware the World Famous Bushman!

18. Union Square

  • San Francisco’s “modern” shopping heart is very popular with tourists and locals alike, and I am slowly warming to it, though I still prefer to use it more as a thoroughfare from Market to Chinatown and North Beach;
  • The Westfield Shopping Center, Macy’s flagship branch, Saks Fifth Avenue and many more designer stores account for its huge popularity;
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  • There are a number of good diners and grills in the vicinity, including John’s Grill, Daily Grill and the daddy of them all, the Tadich Grill;
  • It borders both the Tenderloin and Civic Center, so don’t be surprised by the number of homeless people, some of whom may approach you for money, or at least to persuade you to buy a copy of Street Sheet, or they may just open the door at Starbuck’s on Powell for you.

19. Bay Bridge

  • Many, including my wife, prefer this to the Golden Gate Bridge and love driving on both its upper and lower decks;

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  • The new span that replaced the old one destroyed by 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake has recently opened and is stunning;
  • It is spectacularly lit up at night.

20. MUNI

  • San Francisco’s public transit system is loved and hated in equal measure by both locals and visitors;
  • The cable cars, one of only two moving National Historic Landmarks, are not merely tourist toys, many locals use them too, and you must ride them;

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  • The lines on the Powell and Hyde and Powell and Mason routes may be long but it’s well worth the wait – hurtling down Nob or Russian Hill, especially if you nab the lead rail, is a thrilling experience;
  • If you’re averse to waiting in line, take the less busy California Line which starts in the Financial District and runs up Nob Hill before descending to Van Ness
  • The historic F Streetcar, with its colourful fleet transplanted not only from other American cities but from around the globe, runs from the Castro along Market and the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, is a charming if uncomfortable ride. Don’t expect, however, to get anywhere quickly;

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  • Very few bus rides on Muni are boring – you’re almost certain to be entertained, amused and horrified – or all three, on any journey – after all, all human life is there!

21. Sports

  • If you’re in town between April and October, get seats for a game at AT & T Park to watch the San Francisco Giants baseball team, twice World Champions in the past four years and currently leading the Majors by a distance;
  • Even off-season, a tour of the ballpark, dubbed the most beautiful sports stadium in the country, is a treat;

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  • The San Francisco 49ers football team have vacated windswept Candlestick Park, bound for their new home in Santa Clara in Silicon Valley!
  • You can also get your (ice) hockey fix too between the months of October and April by taking the train from the Caltrain station at 4th and King to San Jose where the Sharks will be waiting to entertain you.

This is not an exhaustive list – I have not even mentioned the many day trips out of the city that can be made, for example to the wine country (Napa and Sonoma), Muir Woods, Berkeley, Monterey and Carmel. But I think what I have included will keep any first time visitor occupied for a couple of weeks at least!

I would be happy to answer any questions arising from this post.

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‘Tis the night before the start of our our tenth – and longest – stay in San Francisco. And the first to be spent in summer in the enchanted city.

We spent a week in the southern neighbourhood of Noe Valley last spring, and whilst much of that time we were elsewhere, we enjoyed its relaxing, civilised atmosphere so much that, when we had to decide where to rent an apartment for four weeks in June this year, we chose it above other likely candidates such as the Mission and the Sunset . This will enable us to acquaint ourselves more with the neighbourhood and adjoining districts as well as providing a good base for visiting other parts of the Bay Area, familiar and previously unexplored alike.

So where is Noe Valley? And what we have let ourselves in for by living there? It sits immediately south of the Castro and east of the Mission in a sunny spot protected from the fog by steep hills on three sides. Its borders are broadly defined as between 20th and 22nd Street to the north, 30th Street to the south, Dolores to the east and Grand View Avenue to the west. Our apartment is on 28th Street between Church and Dolores.

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A look at a map of the greater San Francisco area would suggest that it is relatively remote, and it is undeniably off the tourist trail. But public transit and local roads render it easily accessible to downtown and the South Bay respectively. The J Church MUNI Metro line was our constant companion on our previous trip and will be so again, at least for the first half of our stay before we hire a car for the trip to Tahoe.

Noe Valley is a quiet but cosmopolitan residential neighbourhood with a classy small town feel. Its preponderance of comfortable, even affluent, young families has lead to a change in its nickname from the hippie-inspired “Granola Valley” in the seventies to “Stroller Alley” today. But it also attracts couples and singles of all persuasions, notably gay and lesbian migrants from the Castro. A healthy number of artists and writers complete a sophisticated demographic. The population of approximately 21,000 comprises 70% white, 15% Hispanic and 7% Asian, with the remaining 8% coming from all corners of the globe.

It is blessed with a significant number of classic two storey Victorian and Edwardian homes. Broad streets and brightly coloured exteriors have the writers of guidebooks reaching for words like “cute” and “quaint”. Property prices are inevitably expensive.

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The neighbourhood gets its name from José de Jésus Noé, the last Mexican alcade (Mayor) of Yerba Buena, the original name for San Francisco. He owned the land as part of his Rancho San Miguel but sold it to John Meirs Horner in 1854. Horner laid out many of the wide streets we enjoy today, and the name “Horner’s Addition” is still used for tax purposes by the city assessor’s office.

The main development of what was traditionally a working class neighbourhood came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, notably after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Today, its interest for outsiders lies essentially in the eclectic shopping and dining experience to be found along the stretches of 24th Street from Castro to Church and Diamond to Dolores. Coffee shops, restaurants, one of a kind clothing and gift stores and bookshops abound, along with one of the best farmers’ markets in the city.

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This will be our fourth apartment – the first two were in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle (NOPA) – and, as with previous years, our aim is to blend as far as possible into the local community for the duration. With four weeks at our disposal on this occasion, our “live like locals” strategy has more chance of success than in previous years where we have stayed for no more than a fortnight. We are particularly looking forward to hiking up Bernal Heights, Twin Peaks and Buena Vista Park, as well as reacquainting ourselves with the Mission.

But the extended stay still enables us to satisfy our tourist cravings and revisit the usual suspects such as Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate Park , Beach Blanket Babylon and Haight Ashbury, and, of course, three pilgrimages to AT & T Park to support the Giants in their (currently faltering~) hunt for back to back World Series titles. Any trip would not be complete without expanding our understanding of the Bay Area, so Berkeley, the Zoo, Castro Theater and the de Young Museum, all places we have criminally neglected until now, are on our list.

Having always , with the exception of our first visit in October, visited in spring, we will be also be able to throw ourselves into four of San Francisco’s celebrated annual events – the Haight Ashbury Street Fair, North Beach Festival, Stern Grove Festival and San Francisco Pride.

Our last two vacations have coincided with Crosby and Nash and Elvis Costello gigs at the Warfield. This year, we move to the waterfront at Pier 27/29 where we have tickets for the concert being given by the Steve Miller Band and the Doobie Brothers at the America’s Cup Pavilion. And finally, a short detour to Tahoe is also scheduled.

I hadn’t actually realised until I wrote this just how busy we are going to be!

San Francisco – your “wandering one” is coming home again.  

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Stow Lake is frequented more by residents than tourists who are rather drawn to the heavily promoted, and undeniably impressive, adjacent attractions of the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences and Japanese Tea Garden. Yet it is only a few minutes walk away.

We stumbled upon it purely by accident on our second trip to the city fourteen years ago. Venturing west from those headliner venues, you quickly come across a pathway and 26 steps that lead to the south side of the lake. In the dense trees on the island opposite you soon encounter the charming Chinese Pavilion, a gift from the people of Taipei, shipped in 6,000 pieces and reassembled in 1981.

As you stroll along the path that encircles the lake you gain an immediate impression of both serenity and bustle. Young families, pushing strollers and trying to contain excited children, compete with joggers, dog walkers, cyclists and elderly immigrant couples reliving their first date 50 years ago for the narrow path. Ducks, gulls and other bird life glide along the placid surface, scanning for potential feeding stations wherever humans congregate by the water.

For now, pass the rustic stone bridge on your right and continue along the path  that leads to the boathouse (new photo) where you will be able to rent paddle boats, row boats – new, I believe, this year – bicycles, and in-line skates. Restrooms, picnic tables and a surprisingly well stocked snack bar greet you here also. Indeed, it has the distinction of being the first place in the U.S. where I tasted a vegetarian hot dog (whilst Janet ate ice cream!).

On a bright day you may be lucky enough to observe a row of turtles sunbathing on the rocks and logs alongside the boathouse.

For the more adventurous there is the short but relatively steep hike up to Strawberry Hill, the 430 foot high artificial island in the middle of the lake, which rewards you with fine, slightly tree obscured views across the western part of the city, and even as far as the Farallone Islands 26 miles out to sea.

You can either retrace your steps from the boathouse and access the island across the stone bridge (new photo), or you can approach it by crossing the second “Roman” bridge which appears shortly in the opposite direction. Be sure not to miss Huntington Falls which cascade down into the lake close to the Chinese Pavilion.

Encircling the entire lake and climbing Strawberry Hill amounts to around two and a half miles.

So if you want a few hours respite from the frenetic environs of Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown or Union Square, take a bus out to Golden Gate Park and visit Stow Lake, grab an ice cream and paddle gently for an hour in the civilising company of ducks and turtles.

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There are few more relaxing spots in which to while away an afternoon in San Francisco than the man-made Stow Lake in the centre of Golden Gate Park.

It’s frequented more by residents than tourists who are rather drawn to the heavily promoted, and undeniably impressive, adjacent attractions of the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences and Japanese Tea Garden. Yet it is only a few minutes walk away.

We stumbled upon it purely by accident on our second trip to the city thirteen years ago. Venturing west from those headliner venues, you quickly come across a pathway and stairs that lead to the south side of the lake. In the dense trees on the island opposite you soon encounter the charming Chinese Pavilion, a gift from the people of Taipei, shipped in 6,000 pieces and reassembled in 1981.

As you stroll along the path that encircles the lake you gain an immediate impression of both serenity and bustle. Young families, pushing strollers and trying to contain excited children, compete with joggers, dog walkers and cyclists for the narrow path. Ducks, gulls and other bird life glide along the placid surface, scanning for potential feeding stations wherever humans congregate by the water.

For now, pass the rustic stone bridge on your right and continue along the path  that leads to the boathouse where you will be able to rent paddle boats, row boats – new, I believe, this year – bicycles, and in-line skates. Restrooms, picnic tables and a surprisingly well stocked snack bar greet you here also. Indeed, it has the distinction of being the first place in the U.S. where I tasted a vegetarian hot dog (whilst Janet ate ice cream!).

On a bright day you may be lucky enough to observe a row of turtles sunbathing on the rocks and logs alongside the boathouse.

For the more adventurous there is the short but relatively steep hike up to Strawberry Hill, the 430 foot high artificial island in the middle of the lake, which rewards you with fine, slightly tree obscured views across the western part of the city, and even as far as the Farallone Islands 26 miles out to sea.

You can either retrace your steps from the boathouse and access the island across the stone bridge, or you can approach it by crossing the second “Roman” bridge which appears shortly in the opposite direction. Be sure not to miss Huntington Falls which cascade down into the lake close to the Chinese Pavilion.

Encircling the entire lake and climbing Strawberry Hill amounts to around two and a half miles.

So if you want a few hours respite from the frenetic environs of Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown or Union Square, take a bus out to Golden Gate Park and visit Stow Lake, grab an ice cream and paddle gently for an hour in the civilising company of ducks and turtles.

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In my recent post California Dreamin’……and of Nevada too, I promised, or rather threatened, to burden you with my plans for the San Francisco leg of our upcoming trip.

We have rented an apartment in NOPA (North of the Panhandle) for a fortnight this time, hiring a car for the first week and buying a City Pass, which includes a seven day MUNI passport, for the second.  This will be our eighth trip, the first few of which were only for a few days, so the temptation to revisit the same haunts was strong back then.

But now we are more experienced visitors, and whilst I suppose we cannot shake off the tourist tag, we aim to “live like locals” as much as we can.  We will, of course, still frequent favourite spots such as Golden Gate ParkHaight-Ashbury, AT & T Park, Golden Gate Bridge, Beach Blanket Babylon and the Cliff House, but the emphasis is increasingly on new places and experiences as well as return trips to attractions we have not been to for some years.

With the car we intend to take the opportunity to venture beyond the city to Berkeley, Tiburon / Angel Island and Santa Cruz / Half Moon Bay, none of which we have done more than drive through in the past. 

Time permitting, we would also like to explore part of the northern coast, for example Point Reyes and Bodega Bay (Mendocino may be a little too far).   Given that we will be experiencing our first NHL game between the Sharks and the LA Kings, we will give downtown San Jose a look in too. Monterey / Carmel, the Napa Valley and Alcatraz (by day and night) have seen enough of us in the past, so we will spare them this time.

Back in the city the focus will be more on revisiting sites we have missed on recent trips such as Twin Peaks, Coit Tower and the Palace of Fine Arts / Exploratorium.  In addition, there are places that we have, shamefully, bypassed before that we must visit this time, including the Grace Cathedral, City Hall and the redwood grove at the Transamerica Pyramid amongst others.

New cultural experiences will include seeing our first show at the Castro Theater (Singalong Wizard of Oz?), visiting SF MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and the de Young Museum, none of which we have done before.

I am sure I will be adding to the list over the next four weeks but these are the “must-dos” at present.  Whether we succeed in meeting the challenge will be revealed in the daily blog I hope to maintain during the trip.

In the meantime, if anyone has read this and thought “yes, that’s fine but you have just got to go to………….” please let me know.

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